Shore Leave: (Non)DEFCON Dining at Underbelly

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

If you do enough DEFCON Dining, you need a break every once in a while. Think of it like shore leave. A chance to take your mind off the rigors of battle; a chance to interact with civilians; a chance, maybe, to pretend you are one, if just for a little while.

We spent the summer shopping for a house, and finally found one right at the start of the school year. Throughout the process, we had a lot of late-night, last-ditch meals. After a day spent driving around looking at houses (not at the top of my nine and six year olds' to-do lists, surprisingly), we usually just wanted to get some calories in them and get them to bed. It was, quite often, DEFCON Dining taken to extremes. We did things, saw things, man, that nobody should ever have to see. I still wake up screaming sometimes. . .

The day we closed on our house, I needed a drink. Something to make me temporarily forget that I had just agreed to spend multiple times my yearly salary on a piece of land the size of a postage stamp. Something to make me feel . . . civilized. I suppose that there's a sort of tongue in cheek "irony" to the fact that I chose a place called Underbelly for that particular task.

See Also: 100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 1, Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings at Underbelly

My wife and I rarely get the chance to have lunch together, just the two of us. It's an altogether different experience than dinner, and one I wish we could arrange more often. From the moment we walked into the sun-drenched dining room, I knew we'd made a good decision. Underbelly is all clean lines and light wood. High ceilings and generous spacing between tables make the room feel open and airy, and judicious splashes of color give it life. Open shelving displaying jars of pickles and jam add a homespun quality, a reminder that, despite its high aspirations, Underbelly's is a kitchen rooted in tradition.

As has been written many times and more eloquently than I'll manage, that notion of tradition is deeply invested in the myriad food cultures that call Houston home, turning the very idea ever so slightly on its ear in the process. It's a sort of fusion that rejects all of the typical associations that the term summons. It's a recognition that a place and its food culture move and change together, slowly commingling until bánh mì is no more foreign than a burger, and Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings can share space with Crispy Pork Schnitzel & Caraway Scented Braised Red Cabbage, the latter a clever backwards nod to one of Texas's earliest and most beloved "borrowed" dishes, Chicken Fried Steak.

We ordered those last two for lunch, sharing them back and forth over the table and a few glasses of wine from the interesting and affordable list. At the suggestion of our server, we opted for 3 oz. tasting pours of a couple of wines each, the better to pair with our food order. When my 3 oz. pour of a lovely, grassy, slightly mineral and thrillingly tart Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner "Gobelsburger" Kamptal left the bottle nearly empty, the remainder wound up in my glass. A perfectly reasonable thing to do, rendered unreasonably generous when my wife's pour was augmented to match. Even without this unexpected windfall, I think the tasting pour option is a wonderful way to drink through their list, offering a more than ample taste for a less than expected price.

Considering that it was Katharine Shilcutt's No. 1 Favorite Dish, it's probably not surprising that the braised goat ended up being our favorite dish of the day. The goat was shreddy and tender, with enough gaminess to remind you of what you were eating without beating you over the head. The sauce, an earthy yet bright affair, had a slightly fermented edge to it, and a creeping heat that took me pleasantly by surprise. Just as I was opining that, perhaps, it could have been a bit spicier, a spark lit in my throat, smoldering upward pleasantly. That latent burn added a subtlety to the dish, allowing it to change and expand on the palate. Too much heat early on, and the fruity and earthy elements of the dish might have been lost.

I think what really set the dish off, though, were the dumplings. The squat cylinders strewn through the bowl had a wonderfully unexpected texture, a glutinous chew at their centers that made them a delight to eat, offsetting the tenderness of the goat wonderfully. They offered a moment of surprise, something that I find all too lacking in most dishes and at most restaurants.

We were equally captivated by dessert, the composed plate of compressed melon, fried sticky rice, and toasted rice ice-cream a light and satisfying end to the meal. Taken separately, each element was quite pleasant, though it was difficult to see how they might fit together. A bite comprising all three elements quickly cleared that up, bringing texture, temperature, and flavor into simultaneous contrast and alignment. In the best possible way, it all tasted a bit like a grown up Rice Krispie Treat. Along with a cup of excellent coffee from Greenway Coffee and Tea, it was a remarkably enjoyable end to the meal.

I suppose it's appropriate that I spent some part of the meal assessing how our kids would do here. In its way, Underbelly is a very kid-friendly restaurant, its relaxed demeanor and convivial service broadcasting an unstuffiness that is perfect for a DEFCON 5 situation. Still, most of my mental energy was spent enjoying myself. It's amazing how civilized it feels to have a lovely meal in a lovely space, a few glasses of wine and some exclusively adult company for conversation. Now, I've got to get back to the boat.

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